'Making art is dangerous'

As we walk the halls of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, pushing past intense young paint-daubed students and looking into classrooms where thickets of easels hid the models, the smell of oil paint and other, stranger media -- melting plastic and various molten metals, sawdust, and varnish -- surrounds us, imparting a feeling of industry in both senses of the word. In one room, a young woman swabs a brown metal construction with a cloth dipped in something shiny while another stands with her hands in a sandblasting machine.

"Making art is dangerous," says my guide John Carmichael, an assistant to the dean.

It's also smelly, messy, time-consuming, and most important for the School of the MFA these days, it takes space. More space than it has now in the long brick building across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts parking lot, which the institution built for it in 1926, when it outgrew its basement home in the main building. Since 1966, the school has been renting extra space in other buildings. Right now the "annex" is a defunct theological school, filled with large, abstract canvases in a honeycomb of cubicles lit by dangling bare light bulbs, with art of all descriptions leaning up against corridor walls.

What's worse, explains Bruce MacDonald, the school's dean, is that, with the changes in the school's curriculum "we finally had too much technology crammed into one building," so the various media have begun to interfere with each other. Up until about ten years ago, the school offered only the painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture courses that made up a "classical" education in fine arts. Now, thanks to a broadened curriculum for the school that makes it more responsive to changes in the art world, the enterprising art student can learn video, filmmaking, photography, and ceramics as well.

Anything else he feels he needs to know to make art will be arranged for, although Bruce MacDonald reports, "I found a student looking at a homemade laser in one of the studios upstairs, and I must admit I worried about that."

Bill Bagnall, now curator of the De Cordova Museum of Art in Lincoln, Massachusetts, says the school, which had been one of the four or five outstanding American art schools of the 19th century, had by the 1960s been "resting on its laurels to the point where it was turning brown." It was he who brought the school around to its present rambling, flexible organization.

As the pursuits of its students have expanded, the building has not. An extension of the school is slated to begin next fall, designed by award winning architect Graham Gund, at a cost of $4.1 million, half of which has been raised.

The Museum of Fine Arts has given the school $1 million, after having an independent committee look into the school's worth and progress, and getting from them, according to trustee Esther Anderson, "a wonderful, strong, favorable report. We wanted to make sure it was a justifiable thing for the museum to do from a monetary point of view," she says, almost apologetically. She herself studied there for five years after her children had grown up, and she has a strong loyalty to the school. "But there was no sense putting all this money into a dead horse," she adds. The school has raised $1 million from friends and alumnae, and expects to raise more from foundations and corporations.

It may take three years, but, according to Debbie Dluhy, the school's development officer, the support is there. "Some artists in our society are immensely successful, and others aren't. For them it's a struggle, but they're both supportive. Some are giving $10 a month, which means as much as the big gifts. You need the love as much as anything else."

Though the school is substantially self-supporting, the museum has always been committed to keeping it going. In the dark years after the war, it actually began to look like a dead horse. It had lost momentum and then almost lost its building when a proposed highway project -- later dropped -- threatened to bury it in asphalt.

The museum, not to mention the school's faculty and students, took a hard look at it, and sweeping changes were made. Not only did it survive that time, it came out of it with a unique free-form way of teaching art, as well as an affiliation with Tufts University for a degree program. The degree program has more strictures, but will qualify a student to teach, while the diploma program has no strictures at all, except that the student must exhibit art. It results in entries in the catalog such as "Free Painting. No instructor." The school has always been rebellious.

Though it may have seemed decorous at the beginning, "there was very little art being taught in schools in 1870," Esther Anderson says. The school was started in 1876 by a group of museum trustees who got together at the Union Club and decided to establish a professional school of art with high standards, a concept that was all but socially unacceptable at the time.

"An art career was not thought proper for a young man," she points out, "and of course no career at all was proper for a young woman." Besides, she says, Boston was a puritanical city. She finds it amazing that the school is still going "in a community where puritanism is still strong."

Bruce MacDonald has been keeping the school going and dealing with problems of crowding for five years now, and has become philosophical about it. And a philosophical man is just what is needed, teachers and students agree, to run such a school. You feel that, even without the promise of a new building, he would manage to speak lightly but thoughtfully about lack of space. He sits back in his tiny office off the main corridor of the art-packed old building, puts the crackers from his lunch back in his desk drawer, locks it and hides the key.In his dramatic voice, which rises and falls with the singing cadence of some of our best modern poets, he tells us: "Historically, the arts begin dirty and get cleaner and cleaner and cleaner. You start with people doing ceramics, which is making art out of mud. (I hope they'll forgive me for that.) And then you have people making stone sculpture, which is like making art out of dirt when you actually watch it happening, and then it gets cleaner when you mix the stuff with fluid and you paint it on. . . You're using ground up bushes and other things, which are a little cleaner. Then you begin printing with inks. You're using even less [pigment] and it's a little cleaner. . . . Then, when you do photography, a speck of dust will ruin your negative. It's got to be virtually sterile. When you get to film, not only does it have to be clean and sterile, it has to be quiet."

The historian becomes the dean again and the voice gets a bit frantic, his brow a little more furrowed and less reflective: "We have all these people making dirty art next to a lot of people making clean art, and there were a lot of problems. The ceramics department would mix up a lot of clay, and unfortunately because we need water for both places, they're right next to the photography department and the photographers come in wringing their hands and saying, 'What's going on in here? Can't you control those ceramicists? They're ruining our negatives.'"

But the solution is simple and (one hopes) neat. Architect Graham Gund will build another building almost as big alongside of the original one. The dirty and clean arts will be kept separate. As for the students, "They'll be better friends," says MacDonald. And they'll have a place to celebrate improved relationships: a pyramidal glass atrium connecting the two buildings for student shows, meetings, or just having lunch, something there are no facilities for now.

To some, it all sounds like incredible luxury."I'm going to miss the funky old building," says Paula Severini, who has been painting in the annex for four years. "It's so filthy in there, you don't worry about making messes." However, she adds, "I only walk in there in old clothes."

The ability to get anything at all done in such cramped conditions has been a source of considerable pride to the school's artists. Jeff Stetson, who runs the Visiting Artists Program, talks fondly of "people painting with elbows interlocked. There seems to be a spirit there. You wonder what's going to happen" when there is finally enough room to unlock elbows.

Mrs. Anderson agrees. "You can inhibit art students with too much architectural detail," she maintains. And too pristine an atmosphere, she says, can be just as off-putting as a white piece of paper which one hesitates to make a line on. But she admires Graham Gund's simplicity and restraint. Graham Gund points out that it's nonsense to worry about losing the "funky" -- others have said "rat-infested" -- old building.

"The character of the school is in the teachers, not the facilities." he says. "It's the quality of the administration and teaching staff that make it totally different from most art schools." He knows whereof he speaks. Though he went to Harvard (the School of the MFA doesn't teach architecture), he has had plenty of time to observe the school in the six years he has spent as a trustee of the MFA, of which the school is a department. He also does some painting himself.

"The process of working on art is an inward involvement," he said. Thus, the new building's high windows, which will give light, but not views. "You're fighting it out with yourself" in the creative process, he says.

Understanding the ascetic nature of such a fight and the school's unpretentions attitude ("What we're really looking for is a better garret," Bruce MacDonald is quoted as saying in the fundraising brochure), not to mention its funding situation, Gund has designed a "no frills" building, with space to work but few adornments.

The original building will be restored. Gund will take out extra floors that were added during World War II when the building was used as a Navy hospital and bring back the lofty old double-height rooms. The new building, he says, "has to be flexible." It will be built "like a warehouse," with walls that can be easily moved to accommodate changes in art forms and the curriculum that keeps up with them.

However the building works out, Gund's plans reflect what everyone agrees is the character of the school where, paradoxically, there are no fundamental courses per se, and students can change all their courses in a day -- "a real workshop" in the words of Gene Ward, dean of admissions.

This volatile situation is another source of pride around the school. Bruce MacDonald explains: "Kid'll be doing ceramics and the review board says, 'Well, your ceramics aren't really working' -- this is October, he's been here two months -- 'your ceramics aren't really working out, you don't understand the third dimension, what you need is a sculpture course.' Kids being what they are, he drops all of his ceramics courses that day, because you can do that here. You can go through this school and feed on this school laterally as you move forward. That's why we have so many administrators to the numbers of students we have. . . it's hard to keep track of all that."

All that is really necessary for the student (MacDonald has second thoughts about calling them kids. "They're not kids, I'm just getting older.") who changed from ceramics to sculpture, is to turn up at his next review board with all his ceramics, sculpture, or whatever he is able to produce. Review boards, where two faculty members and two students review work and award a certain amount of points, are taken very seriously.

"This school is an analogy to the real world for artists. If you want to be an artist, you have to exhibit, and the review board is just exhibiting at the end of the term," MacDonald says.

There are no grades in the diploma program; the review board awards points on the basis of the student's intentions for his or her project, the possibilities, and what actually resulted. The degree program, administered by Tufts University in nearby Medford, is more strictly put together. Basically, though the degree program helps the school, giving it the ability to train art teachers and attract those students who might feel they need some kind of credentials to make a living in art, "the diploma program is the beating heart of the school," according to Bruce MacDonald. If it seems to a review board that a diploma student already knows all he or she can learn at school, the board can simply award the student the proper amount of points and send him out into the real art world. But this happens infrequently.

More often, the review board gives the student some criticism and the feeling of accomplishment one gets from finishing something and displaying it. "It's like an awards ceremony," says De Cordova curator Bill Bagnall. Mr. Bagnall instituted the system when he took over running the School of the MFA in 1969, after the school went through its great bout of soul-searching. His reminiscences of that period (which he refers to as "the time when the students were rioting at Columbia") are heady ones. He abolished the formal departments in an effort to make the school more flexible and accommodating to students.

"I believed in the individual as artist, not groupthink. I believed we had to offer anything they needed -- even floral arrangement," he says. He felt that the student unrest of the time was a cry for help that had to be answered. He remembers saying at a commencement that "Culture and civilization will go down the drain unless we listen" to that cry.

In the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at least, the revolution has become institutionalized. Liberation has become the order of the day. Now, says Jane Hudson, who was hired by Bagnall and still teaches video with her husband, Jeff, "The school is willing to face a lot of the changes art has gone through." As are the Hudsons, who have been doing video art since the early days, lasting through the period "when the bluh wore off" and there was no funding for video art. They also perform as a rock band, the Manhattan Project, in New York. For all the trappings of popular culture they are involved in -- from Portapak documentaries to punk rock -- Jane Hudson stressed the discipline and motivation necessary to work in these medias, which she is teaching as part of the fine arts.

No matter how freely chosen, every course offered at the school seems to require a lot of intense effort. Dean of admissions Gene Ward says when parents come in with a prospective student and ask, as he reviews the portfolio, "'What do you think? Can he make it?' or 'Can she make it?' My answer is always, 'How hard do you want to work?'"

Paula Severini probably answered "very hard." After studying at the Cleveland School of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, she says the School of the MFA is "the finest school in the country for painters. It has been developed so students can mature while in school. . . . It doesn't mother you."

Nilsa Garcia Rey, a second-year painting student, agrees, though she admits she's in her "sick-of-it phase." She feels she's had enough of the "intentsity of people painting together and talking about painting and being together." But the pressure and competition she feels at the school are like the pressure and competition in the art world, she says. "You're not just coddled along. You're constantly hit with what you have to face. You're constantly challenged with the idea of making a living and painting."

Having an eight-year-old son to bring up makes her particularly aware of this challenge. She keeps them afloat financially by renting out roller skates from a truck during good weather. Materials are a big challenge.

"When I worked on my own I'd have a tube of paint for years," she remembers. Now, as her ideas are developing, so is the size of her canvases. "I'm squeezing out large volumes of paint and I feel like I'm slightly insane." The large canvases, though, are what stimulate and challenge her as an artist, and she credits the school, too intense or not, with bringing her along to such discoveries.

"It's the only way to get past all the barriers into the land of the unknown. . . . I question it a lot, but it's what really excites me. I've arrived at the point of no return. . . ," she says, the mixture of elation and unease in her tone expressing the term "creative tension" better than any words.

Bruce MacDonald would approve of all this. "I'm struck by the fact that art is one of the places where people most clearly experience the wholeness of their feelings," he said. "Really, the definition of a mature artist is an artist who has that sense of the world. The sense of the springing of new life and the decay of old life, of birth and of death, of happiness and of sadness, of passiveness and activeness, of intuition and peace. All the things that encompass that vast body of our experience."

The body of experience he is talking about is not just what's involved in getting to school and paying for it. It includes the history of art, and its future as well. Vast, indeed.

"We are trying to give students a way of expressing a whole sense of the world. . . . which is likely to have a sense of poetry about it and you have to accept it in that sense. I think that's the kind of thing that people would be looking at 200 years from now. . . . That's our mission as a school and that's what the mission of a school attached to one of the great [and he says 'great' almost with an echo, to express his veneration] collections of fine arts in this world, which that museum is. I think that's really what this kind of school should be doing."

How can a school with lasers in the attic and punk rockers for teachers pretend to be looking toward the timeless?

Bruce MacDonald describes the way one might learn to make a film at the School of the MFA: "You'll go and look at all . . . the portraits ever made. . . . The Romans, you know, did absolute realistic portraits because the real-looking thing was important to that culture at that time. That's the way they thought. . . . And you'll look at things from a Mannerist period, where you'll get something else. . . an attitude toward the way things look. You can look at the whole history of ways of making a portrait, and then you make a film about someone which is a portrait. And you have come to understand something about ways of looking at people to make a way of looking at people in a new medium.

"I think that what you make is a 'wholer' work of art . . . than you would if you had learned to make a film in another ambience. You had a wholer experience , which is closer to my definition of what art is."

And there's always Robert Baart and John Burns's "Painting Technical Workshop ," a set of courses where you can learn to make a fresco, a Byzantine mosaic or just perfect your gesso, gilding, and egg tempera mixing.None of these techniques have been practiced much since the Renaissance, nor does Robert Baart expect his students to use them in their work.

"I expect them to be aware of them, which is the point of the course," he says. He considers it a history of art course, but says the techniques help the students expand their vocabulary as painters. They also copy paintings in the collection of the MFA. Though most art schools encourage students to copy paintings by old masters, this course is "one of the few in the country this involved," Baart says.

Just looking at the paintings and knowing how they were done gives students the sense of history Bruce MacDonald talks about. Even if they're not destined to follow in Rembrandt's brushmarks, they will appreciate them much more knowing how they were made. And, MacDonald points out, walking down the halls (the copying part of the course is in the museum itself) lets a feeling for the historical aspect of art creep into the students' sensibilities.

To locals the school may still look like an upstart, but Bruce MacDonald says his colleagues in other schools, like New York's Parsons School of Design, see the School of the Museum of Fine Arts as typically Bostonian: "looking at the past as we try to make the future." They feel, he says, that "we are a little too slow, patient, and thoughtful." Which doesn't seem to bother him a bit. And you sense that the feeling of the "whole sense of the world," whether it includes an acute knowledge of the history of art or just a sharp understanding of the cost of paint, will pervade the "clean" building as well as the "dirty" one.

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